Theories of Cognitive and Moral Development

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

This page revised August 22, 2003


Cognitive Development

1. Fact-Opinion Dualism
2. Student Relativism
3. Cognitive Maturity

Moral Development

1. Kohlberg's Six-Stage Theory
2. Gilligan's Challenge to Kohlberg's Theory

A Theory of Cognitive Development in Three Stages

The main outlines of this section are taken from Anne Colby et al., Educating Citizens (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), chapter 4. The evaluation of the first and second stages and some details in the description of the third stage are my own formulations, although they are based on distinctions and insights common among philosophers and other educators. (I have tried to avoid unnecessary technicalities.)

I. Fact / Opinion "Dualism"

A view often found among beginning college students could be called "Fact / Opinion Dualism." This view appears to amount to the following beliefs:

FOD1. All statements are either statements of fact or opinion.

FOD2. Statements of fact are proven, certain. We can rely on them.

FOD3. Statements of opinion are merely opinion, what someone believes. We cannot rely upon them.

FOD4. "The facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts."

In a philosophy course, a Fact/Opinion Dualist may want to know "what is the professor's opinion?" If the professor has presented the arguments for and against, say, the permissibility of assisted suicide, the Fact / Opinion Dualist wants to know which of the two views the professor prefers. Indeed, it may be a fact that the professor does think one of the two views is superior, but what he or she is trying to convey is how the advocates of the two views make their case.

What's right about Fact/Opinion Dualism?

There is an important distinction between truth and falsehood, and there is also an important distinction between what we know (or have strongly justified opinions about) and what we only believe without much evidence. The fact/opinion distinction reflects a confused awareness that these distinctions are important.

What's wrong with Fact/Opinion Dualism?

* You cannot handle two real distinctions with just one mental distinction. We need (at least) two distinctions.

* The sharp split between fact and opinion is misleading. Some opinions are true, and some of these true opinions are justified. If, as seems plausible, knowledge is justified true opinion, then what we know is part of what we have opinions about. And what we really know (however much or little) are "facts." So opinion and fact overlap; they are not mutually exclusive. We can say that some opinions correspond to facts.

* Fact/Opinion Dualists are also mistaken if they treat all opinions as "mere" opinions, as unjustified. But Fact/Opinion Dualists also seem to assume that opinions cannot be justified. On this approach, knowledge as justified true opinion would be impossible.

II. Student Relativism

A second view, often found among college students after they have been exposed in humanities courses to the fact that plausible reasons can often be given for opposing viewpoints, has been labeled "Student Relativism."

SR1. All views have advantages and disadvantages; where two or more views conflict, one can argue plausibly for and against each of them.

SR2. Among such competing views, all positions are equally correct.

SR3. We should be tolerant of views that differ from our own.

SR4. It does not really matter what you believe. (An educated person may believe any of them, with equal justification.)

What is correct about Student Relativism?

* It is often true that when there exist conflicting views, there are plausible arguments for and against each of them.

* Tolerance is a value that we should normally uphold.

Why is it a flawed position overall?

* There are limits, for instance, to how much intolerance a tolerant society can afford to tolerate! (The use of police force to stop people from burning religious minorities at the stake seems justified.)

* Among competing views, not all positions are equally defensible; some are, all things considered, more defensible than others.

* It often does matter what you believe. Beliefs affect action, directly or indirectly. Actions have consequences, some helpful, some harmful to beings that matter (especially human beings).

* Relativism is self-refuting. If we consider any of the planks of Student Relativism (SR1, SR2, SR3, or SR4), somebody can be found who holds the view that the claim is false. According to SR2, then, the contrary view is as correct as the view it opposes. (Thus, SR2 and "SR2 is false" would both be true!)

III. Cognitive Maturity

A third view, which some might call "cognitive maturity," tends to gain ground among at least some students as they advance in their college career.

CM1. Among competing views, some views are more justifiable (rationally defensible) than others.

CM2. We cannot know which ones are (we cannot have justified confidence in them) prior to a serious investigation, using all the mental tools available.

CM3. It is reasonable

     (a) to commit ourselves to the views that appear, on thorough examination, to be most justifiable.

     (b) to be open to challenges from other points of view, especially if they are well-reasoned. (Toleration of other points of view is therefore valuable.)

     (c) to set aside a time in our lives in which we concentrate on serious investigation of the most important, controversial questions.

     (d) periodically to reexamine our previous conclusions and modify them when they can be improved.

A Theory of Moral Development in Six Stages

Added August 21, 2003

Most of the information contained below is taken from the article by Ernest Alleva and Gareth B. Mathews, "Moral Development," pp. 828-35 in Lawrence and Charlotte Becker, eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Garland Publishers, 1992), and Manuel G. Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (Prentice-Hall, 2002), chapter 1. The information on Kohlberg and Gilligan's views can be found in many sources.

Developmental psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan do not agree about everything, but they do agree about the following important points:

1) that there are stages or levels of growth in our moral development

2) that these stages include a level focused on the self, a level in which we uncritically accept conventional standards, and a mature level in which we learn to evaluate our previous standards and try to develop or discover more adequate ones.

Lawrence Kohlberg's View of Moral Development

Preconventional Level
(1) Externally imposed ("heteronomous") morality. To do "right" is to avoid breaking rules; obedience is valuable for its own sake and for the sake of avoidance of damage to persons and property.

(2) Egoism and exchange. To do "right" is to do what is in one's immediate interest; right is also what's fair, an equal exchange. (Tit for tat.)

Conventional Level
(3) Relationships and Interpersonal Conformity. Right is to live up to expectations of family and friends, what people expect of you in your role as son, brother, friend. It means keeping mutual relationships (trust, loyalty, respect, gratitude).

(4) Social system and conscience. Right is fulfilling actual duties to which you have agreed, contributing to society, the group, and institution. Laws are to be upheld except in rare cases when they are inconsistent with such duties.

Postconventional Level
(5) Social contract and minimal rights. One recognizes that most values and rules are relative to one's group, but they should be upheld because they are the social contract (arrived at by a fair procedure). A few rules (rights to life and liberty) must be upheld in any society.

(6) Universal ethical principles. Right is the recognition of universal ethical principles, principles that a thoroughly reflective person thinker will arrive at and choose. (Key among them are recognition of the equality of human rights and respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.)

Carol Gilligan.

Gilligan was a student of Kohlberg and later became critical of some of his generalizations. She is well known for having argued that girls and women tend to develop along a somewhat different path, although similarities between her account of female moral development and male moral development are not hard to discover.

More recent scholarship tends to the view that the "care" path described by Gilligan exists but it is not limited to females, nor are females limited to it. Gilligan may be right that the "care" path is found more often among females than among males.

Preconventional. One learns to care for oneself.

Conventional. One internalizes norms about caring for others and tends to neglect oneself.

Postconventional. One becomes critical of the conventions one adopted in the conventional stage and learns to balance caring for self with caring for others.